Just a few weeks ago, it felt like a foregone conclusion that Amy McGrath, a D.C. insider-anointed former Marine fighter pilot, would win the Kentucky Senate primary and go on to battle Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November. But then Charles Booker, a 35-year-old progressive and Black Lives Matter activist, entered the chat, and Booker vs. McGrath became one of the most exciting and promising races of 2020. Today, voters will decide who will compete to end McConnell's 36-year career.
While Booker has raised nowhere near the $41 million McGrath has in her coffers, a new poll has found him surging against McGrath, 44% to McGrath’s 36%. He's also collected endorsements from progressive leaders such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as from Kentucky's most influential newspapers, unions, and legislators. Suddenly, McGrath's win is not as locked in as was formerly thought.
Booker represents a completely different school of thought from McGrath in terms of what it takes to win in a conservative state. While he has built a diverse coalition that includes many young people and people of color, McGrath's main appeal is to older, moderate swing voters. And as protests for racial justice continue nationwide, Booker has emerged as the candidate who has "met the moment": After the National Guard killed beloved Louisville restaurant owner David McAtee amid protests, Booker was among a group of leaders mediating between police and neighbors. He has been on the frontlines of protests daily, speaking up about the killings of George Floyd, Kentucky EMT Breonna Taylor, and many others.
“Three or four weeks ago, Booker was a long shot,” Cliff Albright, cofounder of Black Voters Matter, told Refinery29. “But as these issues that we’re seeing spilling into the streets have raised debates over defunding the police, that inevitably should lead more people to be engaged and involved in supporting his candidacy. We’ve already seen some evidence that he is getting a bump and getting more attention. This issue can become the defining issue in some of these primaries.”
Many have raised the alarm about voter suppression in Kentucky's primary. Voting rights experts say the state is not prepared for the high voter turnout this contest is bringing, having drastically cut the number of polling places. “Fewer than 200 polling places will be open for voters in Kentucky’s primary Tuesday, down from 3,700 in a typical election year,” The Washington Post reported last week. “Amid a huge influx in requests for mail-in ballots, some voters still had not received theirs days before they must be turned in. And turnout is expected to be higher than in past primaries because of a suddenly competitive fight for the Democratic Senate nomination.”
However, this hasn't stopped Kentuckians from voting in record numbers. Over a third of voters in some areas requested absentee ballots to avoid voting in person amid the pandemic. It remains to be seen whether this surge in turnout will help Booker's chances — but either way, many people are on the edges of their seats.